Led by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the Dallas Cowboys are using Run/Pass Options (RPO) to be more creative in the Red Zone in order to give their second year quarterback Dak Prescott more space to work with. It appears the team installed it last season when they used it in their comeback against the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
Giving Prescott the decision to option into a run or pass post-snap can increase Dallas’s chances of success. If the correct read is made, it’s almost guaranteed to be a positive play should the quarterback make an accurate throw.
Furthermore, Dallas has the personnel to make this concept become an effective part of their playbook. With an elite rushing attack powered by one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, a runner like Ezekiel Elliott, and receiving targets like Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, opposing teams have to take into consideration both the run and pass.
To open their season against the Giants, Dallas came out in the no huddle in an attempt to wear down New York’s defense by not allowing them to change personnel. This was a good strategy for the Cowboys offense as they are a run-heavy team with a quarterback who is very good at taking care of the ball. This could leave opposing defenses on the field for long periods of time.
With Elliott in the backfield defenses have to be ready for the run. Dallas used RPOs in the red zone to their advantage, knowing if the linebackers committed to the run, Prescott would keep it and pass it to the open target. The goal being to create space in opposing secondaries.
On 2nd and goal from the New York 3-yard line, Dallas is lined up in 11 personnel with 6:39 left in the first quarter. New York has six men in the box pre-snap, but have two defenders lurking where it can be a stacked box during the play:
When the ball is snapped, Jason Witten (#82) – lined up on the wing to the right of the formation – cuts across the backfield that resembles a split zone run. Prescott goes to hand off the ball to Elliott, but keeps it as safety Landon Collins (#21) begins to come down to stop the run. This leaves wide receiver Dez Bryant (#88) against cornerback Janoris Jenkins (#20) in a one-on-one matchup to the right of the formation:
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Bryant has inside leverage on Jenkins and has a lot of space now that Collins isn’t defending the pass occupying the inside. This should be an easy touchdown, but Prescott’s throw is high.
With match-ups like this, Dallas should have more success on these plays later in the season.
The formation below is similar to the one Dallas ran against Green Bay during the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season. Then, Dallas had Bryant and Witten flipped lining them up on the left side of the formation also within the 10-yard line. Linehan might like to call this when he’s close to the goal line:
Another possible tip-off is that Witten is lined up on the wing opposite to whatever side Bryant is on. This is probably to make the linebackers flow to the opposite side of the primary receiver on the play as Witten cuts across the formation as if he’s blocking a split zone run. Prescott also kept on this play and lobbed a pass up to Bryant for a crucial touchdown late.
Dallas would tie the game on the next play via a Prescott run on the two point attempt.This play is difficult to stop even if defenses guess the play because they must respect the run.
Note: To counter, this play could actually be a play action and the play is designed to draw the linebackers and safety in. But because Prescott looks at Collins the entire play, I think it’s an RPO. Thanks to my colleagues Matty Brown and Ted Nguyen for the input:
On the Cowboys’ second drive before the half they were in the red zone once again, but this time from the 12-yard line. Dallas is in 11 personnel in a trips formation to the right with Witten in line on the left. This play is definitely an RPO as the offensive line gets downfield and there is a bubble screen option – which is something offenses often package into RPO plays:
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The ball is snapped and Prescott again goes to hand the ball to Elliott. To the left of the formation Witten runs up the seam and to the right Beasley (#11) is running a bubble screen with two blockers in front.
At the mesh point Prescott reads the left side of the coverage. Only Eli Apple (#24) is on that side of the field as linebacker Jonathan Casillas (#52) committed to the run. Because of this Apple has no underneath help and Witten bends his route to create inside leverage against the second-year cornerback. Prescott reads the zone defense and delivers a good ball to his tight end for a walk in touchdown.
In sum, the Cowboys offense moved the ball down the field, but didn’t convert red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. While only one of the RPOs from Week 1 resulted in a touchdown, both of them should have scored. Prescott’s accuracy wasn’t at its best Week 1, but overall he made the proper adjustments to come out with a victory. It seems that Linehan has added another creative play call to Dallas’s playbook that should help increase the odds of scoring in the red zone in the weeks to come.